Power to the crafts

What happens when craftivism meets spirituality?

Browsing and navigating my way through the colourful and diverse independent zines stalls showcased at the annual "Publish and Be Damned" event, I find myself drawn to a stall draped in handmade patchwork bunting. The stall is being manned by three women - one is wearing a huge knitted blue jumper with a grinning cat on it, one is in a studded denim jacket, and one is wearing a floral print hijab – and they are selling a small handcrafted zine called OOMK – One of My Kind. In tough economic circumstances, it’s inspirational enough that people are setting up very niche creative publications that they care about passionately, but these women are the only visibly ones from an ethnic minority in the hall - and happen to be muslim illustrators too.

Sofia Niazi, who is of Pakistani origin, tells me that she feels strongly about visual communication and that she founded the zine, alongside Rose Nordin and Sabba Khan, as she felt there was a noticeable gap in the market. “Articulating yourself visually is something that has been lacking in the muslim community,” she explains, “sometimes the arts isn’t encouraged, even though it influences us so much in the way we understand things and join the dots, and there aren't many muslims going to art schools. It’s frustrating when your voice isn’t heard, so we thought we’d do something about it, and create a friendly space where alternative talent can be appreciated and showcased.”

The zine has a folksy feel and is a highly eclectic visual feast, reflecting their mixed and interweaving heritage, with the aim to celebrate “the imaginations, creativity and spirituality of women.” I’m struck by the fact that it is inclusive, with 25 women contributors – writers and artists – all from different backgrounds, dipping into both ethereal and political realms in the issues they tackle. The theme of this issue is fabric, and explores the appreciation and struggle women have with material. Instead of finding glamorous Hollywood actresses that you’ll find in glossy magazines, there is a striking illustrated tribute to Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen as she walked to school. Artist Ceri May writes about expression using wool and felt, there is a sketch of human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce, and a cut out poster of harem pants with the caption: “Elastic revolution. Escape the fat race. One size fits all.”

Underpinning this publication is the ethos of “craftivism”. I had never heard of this before, but it is a concept coined in 2003 by Betsy Greer, and she explains that it is a term that defines the intersection of “craft” and “activism”. It’s a movement that defies second-wave feminists by reclaiming traditionally feminised and domestic activities – sewing and knitting - that have historically been marginalised and undervalued, which is turned on its head and used instead as a means to make a stand and raise awareness of a cause. The juxtaposition of the comfort of craft with a bold political image is powerful, and far more accessible, and arguably, more effective than any political pamphlet could be. The artist Hannah Habibi writes in her essay in the magazine how she uses “stictching as a weapon of resistance” against gender constraints.

Of course, this isn’t something new. You can always spot a highly creative handmade banner at a demonstration, which guarantees a smile. Barbara Kruger in the 70s and 80s crocheted, sewed, painted and most famously juxtaposed photograph montages with bold text to criticise sexism and challenge concepts of power. Yet sometimes, there is the perception that art is exclusive and ethnocentric. The perception that that there is a monopoly over creative expression, or the negative notion that channeling your voice through art is worthless, need to be broken. Which is why I find publications like OOMK and projects by young women like Sofia, Rose and Sabba particularly exciting, and hopefully small efforts like this will inspire and make art more accessible and open to new audiences.  

Rose Nordin sells copies of the inaugural issue of OOMK (Photo: Aisha Gani)
Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder